Teaching facilitation for strategic leadership

Written by 
Lynda Baker
May 10, 2021

Like most of us, 2020 left me searching for tools and inspiration to move all my work online. My first challenge was to quickly pivot a university course I teach in-person to an online environment. While the university provides a state-of-the art learning management system and Zoom access, those alone would not be enough to deliver my class in a meaningful, engaging way for my students. 

This class is offered to students pursuing a Master of Science in Leadership and Change degree at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. The program equips aspiring leaders to enact positive, organizational change — a crucial competency today. Students are prepared to facilitate change across diverse teams in the workplace. The class I developed and teach, Facilitation as a Tool for Strategic Leadership, focuses on the latter — the theory and practice of facilitation.  

Recreating this class online made me feel like I was flying a plane while building it, but during the process I uncovered three key ways to conduct successful group work in this new virtual and hybrid landscape. 

  1. Facilitation competencies are fundamental
  2. Technology need not be overwhelming
  3. Human connection is still vital 

Facilitation competencies are fundamental

Pivoting to the online environment did not change the imperative to emphasize facilitation core competencies for my students. As an educator, it’s essential to prepare students how to use facilitation to enact positive change. Many of these students will go on to become leaders who will need to keenly understand group dynamics and the power of excellent communication skills.   

Whether in person or online, successful facilitators will still have to ask the right questions and then listen to answers. From clarifying objectives, partnering with meeting sponsors to design and manage a meeting — facilitators will need to understand groups, interpersonal dynamics, as well as tools and techniques to guide groups to useful outcomes. They will also need to know about themselves and what role they play in the group dynamic. 

Facilitators with limited self-awareness or an understanding of the principles that drive their approach may be very entertaining speakers who hold a group’s attention, but they won’t maximize their ability to empower others. Competent facilitators understand how their behaviors and beliefs impact their ability to leverage the work of others in order to create powerful results. 

While digital tools will support a multitude of facilitation processes, they won’t compensate for an unskilled facilitator. Moreover, grounding students in facilitation theory and practice enables them to make informed choices about technology that will best fit their needs in the future.  

Technology need not be overwhelming

I quickly discovered that introducing students to MURAL was the right tool at the right time and significantly allayed my initial concerns about working online. MURAL made it easy (and attractive) for students to experience the power of small group activities. Students were actively engaged in collaboration while simultaneously documenting their conversations on several multi-colored sticky notes. While the class members were expressing ideas in their small group I also had a birds-eye view of all the groups working in various corners of a canvas. I could easily zoom in and out and visit their breakout rooms when needed to keep conversations and ideas flowing. 

The canvas environment offered a flexible platform for students to generate, share, and organize their ideas. They experienced the power of participation to debrief course content and to demonstrate their facilitation skills. 

Working in MURAL relieved many of my concerns about the limitations of online work. Moving from in person “place” to virtual “space” demonstrated that visual collaboration could enhance rather than inhibit the teaching and learning experience. One team in my class even used their imagination to create their final projects in a mural — exceeding their (and my) expectations.  

The canvas environment offered a flexible platform for students to generate, share, and organize their ideas.

Human connection is still vital

COVID captivity highlighted our cravings for social connection. MURAL enabled students to connect ideas and interact with one another in more than a chat or a poll. Collaborating was seamless, flexible, and visual. Using a tool that attended to both the learning objectives and experiential aims allowed students to connect both their hearts and minds to the learning experience.  

These aspiring strategic leaders will need to manage change in a new hybrid environment with many unprecedented challenges. They experienced a model that didn’t supplant or overpower content – but served as an appropriate adjunct to the material. The connections made on the digital whiteboard were informal, friendly, and dare I say, fun? Meetings and classes don’t have to be sterile, formal, or boring. Getting work done and having a pleasant emotional connection with colleagues at the same time is a virtue we all might want to consider a standard practice and expectation. 

As I prepare for this year’s Facilitation as a Tool for Strategic Leadership class, and review my own learning from the 2020 edition, I can clearly see a shift in my own thinking from technology limiting how I teach students and facilitating meetings to expanding the possibilities

Visual thinking allowed students to connect both their hearts and minds to the learning experience.  

Educators also need a place to connect

While I scrambled to uncover the key ways to engage my virtual university classroom in 2020, much like many of you I also discovered the value of community and the potential to build meaningful professional relationships across the globe. When the world shut down and educators everywhere struggled to find new ways to engage with their students, many of us leaned on one another to serve our students.  

As educators head back to in-person and hybrid, we will be teaching in a world that is both familiar AND different. The need for us to turn to one another for ideas, feedback, and encouragement is stronger than ever. And the potential is even greater! 

I’ve recently joined the MURAL Community’s Teachers’ Lounge, where I am connecting with educators from all over the world to learn how they use visual collaboration to engage students, what trends they’re seeing, and what interesting methods they’ve successfully implemented in their classrooms. 

I would love to connect with more educators out there so we can create a robust, creative, and imaginative community full of excitement and encouragement for our future and for the future of our students. I look forward to meeting you there.

👉  Get to know educators like Lynda in the Teachers’ Lounge.

About the authors

About the authors

Lynda Baker

Lynda Baker

Lynda Baker is a professional facilitator at MeetingSolutionsOnline.com and adjunct faculty at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

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